There are many good nonfiction books available this fall. Here are five that we wish we could have published ourselves.
1) Nicholas Coleridge (above) was Conde Nast’s man in the UK during the AbFab years. As the son of a chairman of Lloyd’s of London, he started in the right circles, was plucked by Tina Brown for the Tatler straight out of Cambridge, and wound up as chairman of the Victoria and Albert Museum, so still very much in the right circles. His new book The Glossy Years is just as it sounds, a gossipy, rollicking account of his time as an editor, managing director, and eventually president of the international division of the famed American magazine company.
Royals feature prominently. We learn that butter pats at Prince Charles table are embossed with the Prince of Wales’ three feathers. That after topless photos of her appeared in a tabloid and schoolmates teased her son William about them, Princess Diana asked: “Nicholas, please be frank, I want to know your real view. Are my breasts too small, do you think?”
And then there’s this:
“I had written a book, Paper Tigers, about the world’s 30 top newspaper proprietors. Conrad Black was my favourite. I found him mesmerising, his voice, his looming physical presence. His sentences – often paragraphs long – were formed like Russian dolls, each containing a sub-clause, and then another one inside that, and then another. Transcribing a taped interview, some sentences were as complicated to unravel as tangled headphone cable. His declarations rattled with mogul-class name-dropping.
Georgia and I found ourselves standing in line with Conrad at a charity event at Buckingham Palace, to be presented to the Princess Royal, Princess Anne. As the royal presence approached, Lord Black of Crossharbour began to preen. ‘Your Royal Highness,’ he declared in booming, senatorial tones. ‘May I commend you on the magnificence of your paintings here in the Picture Gallery. They are considerably more impressive than those at the White House in Washington, where I was privileged to be dining with the President earlier this week.’ Princess Anne stared at him, nonplussed.
‘Oh, really? Well, one seldom notices the pictures here oneself, having known them for so long.’ And then she moved on.”
2) Paul Tough (not above) grew up in Toronto and was the editor of Saturday Night magazine in the late 1990s. He has since made a career for himself as a fine writer on educational topics. His latest is The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us. It is an interesting subject for Tough given that he was the second consecutive Saturday Night editor in the nineties to have dropped out of multiple colleges, never earning a degree. (Incidentally, the two editors last saw one another in the anteroom of a hotel suite where they lined up to interview a more successful college dropout, Bill Gates.)
Tough traveled to twenty-one states, interviewed scores of parents, professors and admissions officers, and absorbed a ton of data in the research for this book which argues that in “sharp contrast to other ages and other cultures, mobility in the United States today depends, in large part, on what happens to individuals during a relatively brief period in late adolescence and early adulthood.” He believes college admissions favor the wealthy, and he thinks higher education is not so much an engine of social and economic mobility as a barrier to it. Mostly, though, the book is an exploration of the current state of higher education in America in all its pressures, promises, and contradictions. Beautifully written, and an important story.
3) One of our favorite biographers, Edmund Morris died last May and all the obits went heavy on a minor scandal surrounding Dutch, his 1999 biography of Ronald Reagan. Morris supplemented that fine non-fiction narrative with clearly demarcated imaginative chapters that allowed him to present perspectives on the late president not permitted by strict fidelity to the factual record. A few pedants (i.e., academics who thought they deserved to be Reagan’s official biographer) got their noses out of joint on the book’s release and the obituary writers would not let it go. Fortunately, Morris completed one more biography before he passed. By all accounts it is a masterpiece and Morris will have the last word.
Edison, a life of one of history’s most prolific inventors and entrepreneurs, will launch later this month. Written in reverse chronological order, it is bound to generate its own controversies. Kirkus says: “Not only the definitive life but a tour de force by a master.” We can’t wait.
4) Silicon Valley has given us one great TV show (see the best of Erlich Bachman here) and a handful of outstanding books. Scott Kupor wrote Secrets of Sand Hill Road on the venture capital scene in Palo Alto. Dan Lyons produced the hilarious Disrupted: My Misadventures in the Start-Up Bubble. Michael Lewis caught the early spirit of the place in The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story, which appeared almost twenty years ago. Now we have The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America by Margaret O’Mara, an historian of technology and a clear writer who ventures beyond the hype and glitz and gets at what really makes tech tick: a lot of government defense money. Her Silicon Valley is simultaneously a cradle of entrepreneurial and technological genius and a coddled child of the national security state. It’s a fascinating book. Her sojourns into the world of defense contracts and military technologies deserve their own season on HBO.
5) David Markovitz, educated at the London School of Economics, Oxford, Harvard, and Yale Law School, has written a much-discussed book on meritocracy, the concept of which he indicts for benefiting elites and killing the middle class. Like Tough, he sees the post-secondary years as crucial. The Meritocracy Trap argues that elite college credentials are increasingly important to career advancement and that the spawn of the rich dominate those colleges because they can afford the private schools, tutors, test coaches, and life opportunities that help their children clear the hurdles. Human existence for people who don’t get elite educations is mostly precarious.
One of the many interesting angles to this book is Markowitz’s contention that graduates of the elite schools who go on to big jobs in law, finance, and tech are generally miserable, lonely, overworked, stressed, likely to burn out, and unable to stop putting in ridiculously long hours because they need the money.
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